One of the things I have noticed is that many people who aren’t religious tend to be slightly dismissive about the idea of Jesus ever existing. It’s a trend you can see in a lot of atheist literature as well, where the conclusion to the question is usually ‘maybe, but certainly not as presented by Christians. Could be a myth.’
And often it’s hard to find a good response to the question for the layman that isn’t very loaded. Type in the question on Google and you’ll likely be met with an abundance of extreme responses.
A seemingly sophisticated article may end up revealing itself as Christian apologetics, concluding with ‘…so, are you ready to welcome the risen Jesus into your heart?’
Or, equally bad, it could be ranting from the kind of atheists who can’t just see religions as wrong, but as REALLY, REALLY stupid (because their ego can only be validated by everyone who disagrees with them being presented as utterly moronic.) Even worse is the conspiracy theorist approach, where Jesus is said to be representative of a Sun God and the twelve disciples are the symbols of the zodiac etc. etc. (Zeitgiest, you absolute piece of shit, I’m looking at you!)
So I thought I’d do a very simple layman response as a really basic introduction to scholarly thought.
Why should you listen to me?
To be honest, you probably shouldn’t. Instead you should pick up a book by Bart Ehrman, but that’s going to be a lot more effort than skimming this blog post. So, as someone who did his dissertation on the historical Jesus, I feel fairly equipped to give a simple layman perspective.
Let’s get to it.
Did Jesus exist?
Shall we leave it there?
You want more? Well…okay.
The overwhelming majority of biblical scholars do think Jesus was a historical person. What exactly we can affirm about his life is up for debate, but the existence of a Jew called Jesus who went on to become the main focus of a new religious movement is largely accepted.
So why exactly do most of them accept a historical Jesus? Put simply, it’s because it’s the easiest explanation of the evidence we have available to us.
When accounting for the origins of Christianity, it is MUCH easier to work from the position there was a historical Jesus than to not.
What is the evidence?
Let’s briefly look over the available evidence for the existence of Jesus:
- Mentions in the Epistles of Paul (written before the gospels.) The more important references are the incidental ones. For example, in 1 Galatians 1:19 he refers to ‘James, the lord’s brother’ as someone he knows. Given that this is an incidental reference in a letter to a church, it’s reasonably safe to take it at face value.
- Gospel accounts of his life. Admittedly the gospels certainly aren’t historical texts, but they are attestations to the existence of a Jesus figure written about forty or so years after Jesus’ death.
- Non-biblical sources:
– Josephus, a Jewish historian, references Jesus twice. In a shorter passage he mentions James, the brother of Jesus. ‘and brought into it the brother of Jesus-who-is-called-Messiah … James by name, and some others.’ There is also a longer passage. Many believe the longer passage might have been tampered with by Christian scribes but, nevertheless, it’s largely accepted at least part of it can be ascribed to Josephus.
– Tacitus, a Roman politician, from whom we learn a little about Jesus’ execution.
– Other sources include Pliny the Younger. You can read a good breakdown on non-biblical sources here.
- There seems to be no historical accounts which ever call the existence of Jesus into question. Pagan and Jewish sources would be very disparaging of Jesus but none ever come close to actually questioning whether he existed.
So based on all the evidence above, and the fact we know that a religious movement had sprung up professing belief in a messianic figure they called ‘Jesus’, the simplest explanation is to accept Jesus did in fact exist.
Is there any doubt?
Although most scholars believe in Jesus, there are still a few who question his existence. They represent the ‘Jesus myth’ approach, which suggests, as you might expect, that Jesus is a mythological invention.
This approach is, in my opinion, flawed but understandable. Given that most of what we know about Jesus comes from highly mythologised accounts (namely the gospels), it’s not hard to see why people might ask if so much of what we learn about the man is mythological, why shouldn’t we assume that the man himself was mythological?
And there are some quite adamant defenders of this approach, such as the American Historian Richard Carrier.
The trouble is they still have to account for all the evidence presented above. How would they deal, for example, with Paul’s mention of James, the brother of Jesus? Well, they may say, perhaps there was a sect of ‘brothers’, of which this James was one. Or maybe we’re wrong about the authorship of the letter.
And what about the non-biblical sources like Josephus? Perhaps it was forged, or maybe he was simply referring to the beliefs of others, and not stating something he thought fact.
These answers aren’t particularly satisfying, but they represent the great problem the Jesus myth proponents face. You have to come up with so many different complex responses to the various strands of evidence available that eventually you might as well just concede that accepting a historical Jesus is SO much simpler and, therefore, a better explanation (Occam’s razor, and all that.)
It’s also sometimes banded around that perhaps we shouldn’t take biblical scholarship as seriously as other academic disciplines because it may well have a disproportionate number of Christians emotionally invested in finding a historical Jesus. I always feel uncomfortable when we start getting a bit conspiratorial in our approach, but I think this concern may have some slight legitimacy. Whilst I don’t have stats to back it up, I do wonder if atheists, on the whole, might find it harder to get relevant university positions than someone with a faith. No empirical evidence for that, by the way, just a thought.
But even so, there are still two good responses to this:
- The case for the historical Jesus is not an argument from authority alone. Whilst I have argued that the majority of scholars believe in the historical Jesus, even if they all turned out to be biased in their approach, you’d still have to explain the evidence presented.
- Some of the most vocal and respected critics of the Jesus myth approach are atheists (such as Bart Ehrman and the late Maurice Casey.) Equally, even a lot of Christian interpretations are hardly your typical devotional accounts of Jesus’ life. John Dominic Crossan, for example, who identifies as a Christian, doesn’t believe Jesus performed miracles, nor that he rose again or even intended to die for mankind’s sin. In fact, at one point he suggested that Jesus’ body was eaten by dogs. So if Christian interpretations of Jesus’ life can end up being this ‘blasphemous’, I think it gives us reasonable hope that biblical scholarship is not one big exercise in confirmation bias (even if we do need to be aware it may be a factor.)
The above may have been a skin deep layman analysis of the case for Jesus’ existence, but hopefully it interested you enough to read further into these issues.
If we can confirm with some confidence that Jesus existed, you may wonder what we can confirm about his actual life. Unfortunately this is where things get tricky, but a lot of scholars feel comfortable in saying he was a Galilean Jew, baptised by John the Baptist, called disciples, had an incident at the temple and was crucified. We can also be reasonably confident that the disciples continued on with his message, most likely with the belief that, in some way, Jesus had risen again. Many of the disciples were then persecuted for these beliefs.
There are a whole bunch of weird and wonderful interpretations of Jesus’ life and message though, so I encourage you to go and read some.
Now, are you ready to accept the risen Jesus into your heart?…only joking!